The week before the game, a sports columnist asked Coach Red Sanders who was going to win." "Let's put it this way," suggested Sanders: "How should I know?"
Put this way, Coach Sanders had added just the right note to the USC-UCLA game which was a typical southern California production—a little lunacy, a little drama and a lot of comedy. It was funny to everybody but USC Coach Jess Hill.
To begin with, there was Harvey Knox in the press box, a sportswriter for the day for one of the local papers, looking forward to sitting in judgment on his sworn enemies—football coaches. Then there was the telegram from a rather unusual USC rooter which Coach Hill pinned on the dressing room bulletin board. Wired Mrs. Leslie Wilson Craig: "Dear Trojans. Here is a little power thought. Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourselves as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop this picture. Never doubt the reality of the mental image. This is most dangerous for the mind.... Whenever a negative thought concerning your personal power comes, deliberately voice a positive thought to cancel it out."
It was, all hands agreed, one of the most unusual pep talks any football squad was ever presented with. And when the game started, the dear Trojans were holding the mental picture of themselves succeeding so tenaciously that they lined up for the kickoff offside.
November 28, 1955
It wouldn't have mattered except that Left Halfback Jon Arnett ran that kickoff back 97 yards for a touchdown through a corridor of up-ended, shatter-blocked UCLA players. The officials called it back and right then and there the mental picture began to fade. On the very next kickoff, Arnett caught the ball resignedly in the end zone and didn't bother to run it out a step. He acted like a guy who knew when he was licked.
The Bruins forthwith began to play with the same attitude of detached curiosity as their Coach Sanders had shown. Like Red, they didn't know who was going to win either and thus unconfused by any mental images, they proceeded to grind down the field in accordance with No. 10 of Red Sanders' 10 football commandments, the ones he pins on the locker room walls before every game. The 10th commandment is "win the surest way," and this is exactly what UCLA did, 17-7. It threw only two passes—both poor but both completed, thanks to some incredible gymnastics on the part of Ends John Smith and Rommie Loudd. The game was won, as most Sanders games are, by alternate sweeps by Tailback Sam Brown and line plunges by Fullback Bob Davenport. There was a key field goal by Jim Decker, but Sam Brown literally terrorized USC, running from a fake pass, from a fake kick and a fake handoff. Other times, he just forthrightly telegraphed he was coming and ran away from them anyway. He rolled up a staggering 153 yards, carried the ball a whopping 27 times, and the sight of Sam Brown churning around end or waving a fake pass over his head like a tomahawk must have been enough to make Mrs. Craig begin to doubt the power of positive thinking. Fullback Davenport carried 22 times, rolled up 78 yards, most of them with two or more Trojans riding on his back.
Probably because the game was on national TV, the officials saw fit to beef up their parts in the show and by the end of the half they had rolled up 123 yards in penalties and were a threat all the way to overtake Sam Brown for the day's ground-gaining honors. They fell short of him by only five yards.
SPECTATOR FOR THE DAY: RONNIE KNOX
The day was perfect for football—or anything else. A midweek rain had washed away the smog and the temperature was in the 80s, hotter down on the floor of the Coliseum which was all but filled with 95,878 fans. The Bruins, crippled by the loss of their passing ace, Ronnie Knox, who sat on the bench cradling his crutches, his fractured ankle in a cast, were only lukewarm favorites. As everyone knew, USC had halfbacks to burn—after the game their rooters thought it was a good idea. This was the year of the noose in the Pacific Coast Conference, and the football West had become wild again. The coach who hadn't been strung up at least in effigy was a nobody. When the game started, the Bruins had an unstrung coach and a 5-0 conference record, Oregon State had a 5-1 record. If UCLA lost and OSC won (it did not, Oregon triumphing 28-0), Oregon State would technically have been conference champion. It would have been inhumane to feed Oregon State to the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl but a resounding Bruin defeat might have forced the conference hand.
Fortunately, USC saved everybody embarrassment. A fine, feckless bunch of mastodons, USC has been suspected of having the finest football squad in the West, but that historically has been the trouble—they raise squads at Troy instead of teams. They seemed to have quarterback sneak specialists in the game when long-pass artists were called for and vice versa. Where UCLA's best backs carried the ball 49 times, USC's best back (Arnett) unaccountably carried it only 9. This was Sanders' third win in a row over USC. He has lost only one conference game in three years—by one point two years ago—and Sanders was doing his best to remain modest and gracious in the dressing room after the game. "Nobody tried any harder," he murmured about USC. Sanders grinned wryly when asked about Michigan State, his forthcoming Rose Bowl opponent. "I hear they're just about the best in the business," he drawled. Was he pleased they were coming? Sanders grinned slowly: "Not especially."